Widening Access to Higher Education: What Works?

We commissioned Professor Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh to undertake a review into the evidence of what works in widening access. Her research comprised a review of the ‘grey’ literature from various organisations, a review of universities’ outcome agreements where relevant to access and academic literature on access.

The findings are presented largely according to the Milburn (2012) structure of getting ready, getting in, staying in and getting on from university.

Key findings include:

  • The range of under-represented groups is wide and far wider than current policy focus allows for.
  • There is considerable evidence of enthusiastic activities particularly where it comes to outreach.
  • It would be helpful to understand about the reasons why students sometimes don’t take up places.
  • Mentoring, visits to university and summer schools are seen as highly successful.
  • The multi-faceted and longitudinal nature of outreach activities makes it very challenging to have certainty around which elements work best in what context.
  • The research coincided with a scaling-up in the number of universities using contextual admissions. It was therefore recommended that an evaluation of the implementation of these processes would be helpful.
  • The research recommended universities undertake more evaluation of projects and initiatives to widen access including tracking of students.

Comment by the author

“We would stress a lot is being achieved: students from underrepresented groups are entering higher education, institutions are collaborating and progress is being made. It is important to acknowledge the strength of these initiatives and monitor them in ways that help them to develop and do not undermine them.”

– Professor Sheila Riddell

Key Points:

  • The range of under-represented groups is wide, far wider than the current policy focus on young full-time undergraduates from disadvantaged neighbourhoods might suggest.
  • Policy reasons for promoting wider access have varied over the years, but whether those reasons are based on the desire for social justice, or on the desire to meet the needs of employers and the UK economy for well-qualified, skilled graduates, or on the desire to promote social mobility, there is a broad consensus on the need to give everyone with the potential to succeed the opportunity to enter higher education.


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